CEDAR RAPIDS, IA -- Wanting to see what they had in young Venezuelan right-hander Ronald Herrera, the Oakland A's front office challenged Herrera with an advanced assignment coming out of spring training – a spot in the starting rotation with Low-A Beloit.
Herrera, who celebrated his 19th birthday on May 3rd, has more than held his own through nine starts by posting a 3.38 ERA. The 5'10'' right-hander has allowed 19 earned runs on 53 hits with a K:BB ratio of 35:10 in his first 50.2 innings of full-season ball.
A's minor league pitching coordinator Scott Emerson on Ronald Herrera: He's a guy you just sit back and watch. You don't fiddle with him much. You can tell him how to pitch. You may mention his delivery, but you are able to coach his mental game more because his delivery is very good. You just sit back and maintain that delivery and you get to do some advanced teaching stuff with him on the mental-side of the game and on the pitch selection side.
"I'm just working hard and trying to stay healthy," said Herrera, through interpreter/Beloit reliever Junior Mendez. "I'm keeping my mind straight, because I know that I'm young. I want to have the lowest ERA and give my team the best chance to win in every start. I want to make a strong impression."
The aggressive slotting in the Midwest League was somewhat of a surprise, given that Herrera had just signed as an international free agent in 2011 and only spent one season in the States prior to this season.
Herrera spent much of 2013 in Arizona, posting a 3.82 ERA, striking out 58 and walking 11 in 70.2 innings, and winning six of 10 decisions for the AZL A's. He made two appearances at short-season Vermont, including one start, but struggled and allowed five earned runs on 10 hits in just 7.2 innings.
The A's liked what they saw from Herrera this spring and found a spot for him with the Snappers.
"He's doing a great job," said Beloit manager Rick Magnante. "He's pitched extremely well and commands the strike zone with the fastball. He's got a breaking ball that's more than serviceable and a change-up, as well. His repertoire is solid for a starter."
Determined to put the mixed '13 results behind him, Herrera went home to Venezuela set on becoming a better pitcher.
"It wasn't really just spring training that put me in this position, but more of what happened back at home from September to January," he said. "I really worked hard and kept at it. I did the things I needed to do to get ready for spring training."
Herrera is also learning how to pitch well in the Midwest League, and that's consistency pitching in the strike zone.
"Every single pitch that you throw, you can't leave anything high because you're definitely going to get hit," he said. "You can't really have those mistakes. Even the curveballs, you don't get lucky anymore when you leave it over the plate. They all have to be good pitches and you have to locate better than in rookie ball or short-season."
With seven quality outings in his first nine starts, Herrera has fared well in that regard. Perhaps the biggest hurdle for him down the road is being able to go deep into games as a starter.
Magnante turned him loose in a May 13th start against Kane County during which he pitched brilliantly, going seven innings and allowing one earned run on six hits while striking out six and walking none. But six days later in Cedar Rapids, Herrera didn't have the same crispness on his pitches and was knocked around in his five innings of work.
"He had a very good outing prior to [his May 19] one where he threw 102 pitches," Beloit's skipper said. "When he went out for [the May 19 outing], we found that he wasn't as sharp. He's not a very big, physical kid right now and doesn't have a ‘man' body.
"We think that extended number of pitches might have created some fatigue for him. [On May 19] he didn't have the stuff he had previously. But we still consider him a bright young prospect in the organization and he's well advanced for his years."
In fact, Herrera showed some resiliency, bouncing back from that poor outing to dominate the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers at the Milwaukee Brewers' Miller Park on Saturday night. Herrera allowed just two runs on two hits in seven innings, striking out six and walking one in the 4-2 win.
As good as Herrera has been, the future may be even brighter as he sharpens his secondary pitches. Herrera said he is still working on commanding his off-speed pitch.
"My curveball has to get better location-wise, from throwing it on the inside part of the plate to a righty just to getting it away from the barrel of the bat," he said. "I have been very happy with my change-up and fastball."